There is a good deal of period interest in Big Business Murder, by G.D.H. and M. Cole, my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. It was first published in 1935, when the husband and wife co-authors enjoyed a considerable reputation for their detective stories as well as in their capacity as leading socialist thinkers. Three years earlier, George Cole had published a book called The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos (sadly, I’ve never seen a copy – perhaps the intelligent men all kept hold of theirs) and he was also a prominent economist, as well as a mentor of the future Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
The novel begins with a gripping scene, at a board meeting of Arrow Investments. Kingsley Manson, the managing director, reveals to his colleagues that the business is founded on a swindle, which seems likely to unravel unless they all support his attempts to solve the problem. An honest director called Gathorne objects, but the others go along with Manson. After the financial dramas of 2008, some of the Coles’ points struck a surprisingly modern note, I felt. There is a timelessness about greedy, vain or naive people who think that business is all boom, and never bust. The scene was set for a great book.
Gathorne, predictably, is murdered, but after this the story rather falls apart. One of the directors, believing that Manson’s wife is the killer, tries to clear her by confessing to the crime. The Noble but Misguided Confession was a staple of Golden Age detective fiction and Agatha Christie was among those who used the device to complicate her plots. It can, however, be irksome if over-done, and the Coles over-do it badly, so that half the book is devoted to the ramifications of the false and foolish confession before Superintendent Wilson makes a belated appearance.
There are various references to the Nazis, or economic problems in Germany, and there are nice but all too brief touches of satire. The unlovable Inspector Ebenezer Jones is made to say, ‘I don’t hold with Socialism’ – the sort of in-joke that writers often enjoy introducing into their stories. The snag is that, rather than use the business scam as a context for a probing study of the pressures that may drive people to crime, the Coles came up with a half-hearted plot and Wilson solves the mystery in a very anti-climactic fashion. This is a book that is interesting, but for reasons other than those which the authors intended.